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Theresa May needs to show humility – but the EU Withdrawal Bill has none

It would have been a big ask even with the government's pre-election majority.

New year, new Theresa May? The Prime Minister has marked her first year in power with a speech reflecting on the “new reality” of her diminished parliamentary power, and by telling Emma Barnett on BBC Radio 5 Live that she shed “a little tear” when she saw the exit poll predicting she had lost her Commons majority.

In a reflection of the new need for humility, the Great Repeal Bill is out and the more modest-sounding EU Withdrawal Bill is in.

But the new mood of humility doesn't seem to extend beyond the Bill's first page. From the expansion of the powers held as reserved by Westminster, to an erosion of fundamental rights for British citizens – including the laws that allowed John Walker, the retired chemical engineer, to successfully sue for his male spouse to have the same rights to his pension as a woman would – to the sweeping powers it gives the government to alter not only laws but the withdrawal agreement without parliamentary consent, this Bill would have been a big ask even with the government's pre-election majority. (Don't forget, this was bigger than it looked because the DUP was already on-side on Brexit issues).

“We'll block Brexit laws, warn Scots and Welsh” is the Times' splash, while “Scotland and Wales threaten to deny consent for EU Bill” is the Scotsman's. "Revolt over Repeal Bill 'power grab" is the i's take, while that word “power grab” is on the front page of the Guardian too: “PM's EU repeal bill dismissed as 'power grab'” is their take.

It doesn't seem as if Theresa May has really adjusted to the “new reality” just yet. The bill as it stands looks like the political equivalent of suicide by cop. And it's not the only unnecessary fight she's picking. The opposition parties are already riled by the government's refusal to grant them enough opposition day debates.

This should be win-win for the government: the more opposition day debates, the fewer days in which they have to find something, anything, to fill the time with. (And while Labour has a vested interest in throwing a strop to get another election as soon as possible, don't forget that the other opposition parties do not – the Greens are suffering from a fall-off in the amount of short money they receive, the SNP fear that Jeremy Corbyn will take a bumper crop of seats from them next time, and Tim Farron hasn't regenerated into Vince Cable yet.)

A lot went wrong for the Conservatives for a lot of reasons, but one of them was May's unnecessary bellicosity. That wasn't a great trait in a PM with a small majority – it's an even worse one in a PM with no majority at all. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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What Jeremy Corbyn gets right about the single market

Technically, you can be outside the EU but inside the single market. Philosophically, you're still in the EU. 

I’ve been trying to work out what bothers me about the response to Jeremy Corbyn’s interview on the Andrew Marr programme.

What bothers me about Corbyn’s interview is obvious: the use of the phrase “wholesale importation” to describe people coming from Eastern Europe to the United Kingdom makes them sound like boxes of sugar rather than people. Adding to that, by suggesting that this “importation” had “destroy[ed] conditions”, rather than laying the blame on Britain’s under-enforced and under-regulated labour market, his words were more appropriate to a politician who believes that immigrants are objects to be scapegoated, not people to be served. (Though perhaps that is appropriate for the leader of the Labour Party if recent history is any guide.)

But I’m bothered, too, by the reaction to another part of his interview, in which the Labour leader said that Britain must leave the single market as it leaves the European Union. The response to this, which is technically correct, has been to attack Corbyn as Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Norway and Iceland are members of the single market but not the European Union.

In my view, leaving the single market will make Britain poorer in the short and long term, will immediately render much of Labour’s 2017 manifesto moot and will, in the long run, be a far bigger victory for right-wing politics than any mere election. Corbyn’s view, that the benefits of freeing a British government from the rules of the single market will outweigh the costs, doesn’t seem very likely to me. So why do I feel so uneasy about the claim that you can be a member of the single market and not the European Union?

I think it’s because the difficult truth is that these countries are, de facto, in the European Union in any meaningful sense. By any estimation, the three pillars of Britain’s “Out” vote were, firstly, control over Britain’s borders, aka the end of the free movement of people, secondly, more money for the public realm aka £350m a week for the NHS, and thirdly control over Britain’s own laws. It’s hard to see how, if the United Kingdom continues to be subject to the free movement of people, continues to pay large sums towards the European Union, and continues to have its laws set elsewhere, we have “honoured the referendum result”.

None of which changes my view that leaving the single market would be a catastrophe for the United Kingdom. But retaining Britain’s single market membership starts with making the argument for single market membership, not hiding behind rhetorical tricks about whether or not single market membership was on the ballot last June, when it quite clearly was. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.